Health and safety rights after maternity leave
This article provides information on health and safety rights and protections at work for new mothers returning from maternity leave. For more information on health and safety during COVID, see our FAQ page on rights relating to pregnancy and new parents and our page on health and safety rights for pregnant women.
Women returning to work from maternity leave have health and safety protection for six months after giving birth and for as long as they are breastfeeding. You must tell your employer in writing that you gave birth within the last six months and/or that you are breastfeeding.
These rights and protections apply whether you are returning to your old employer or starting a new job.
For more information about breastfeeding after your return to work please see our page on returning to work while breastfeeding – a guide to the law.
As soon as your employer has been informed in writing that you are breastfeeding, or you gave birth in the last six months, and there is evidence of risk arising from your work, a personal health and safety assessment must be done for you. As every woman is different, the assessment should be done in conjunction with you.
The right to a risk assessment works in exactly the same way as during pregnancy, although the risks will not be the same. The assessment will look not at just the more obvious and dramatic risks, like heavy lifting and working with chemicals. The assessment looks at all possible risks to your and your baby’s health.
It might be helpful to ask your doctor, midwife or health visitor what risks there are for you. For example, some women’s ligaments will still be soft after the birth, making lifting a problem. For other women, the issue might be the need to take frequent breaks to nurse or express.
Managing health and safety risks
Once the risks have been identified, your employer must eliminate them if possible. For example, if you are at risk of back pain from standing for long periods, you should be offered a chair or more frequent breaks to sit down.
You must be given information on the identified risk and what is going to be done to address it. It may be that reducing your time at work would remove or reduce the risk – if so, your hours of work should be temporarily changed, if reasonable. If your hours are reduced, your pay should remain the same, and you should be paid for your normal working hours.
If no adjustment or change to working hours will help, then you should be offered a suitable alternative job on similar terms and conditions, which is reasonable for you to do. Whether or not the alternative is reasonable for you to do depends on the type of work, the rate of pay, the hours and times of work and the location of the work. Of course the alternative job must be safe for you to do.
If there is no reasonable alternative job, or no safe job, you must be suspended on full pay so long as the risk remains. This is not sick leave, and you should not be asked to take sick leave for health and safety risks.
Protections from dismissal and discrimination
Your employer must not dismiss you or treat you less favourably for a reason connected with health and safety.
If you need any more advice on this, please contact us .
Frequently asked questions
I just had a baby, can my employer ask me to work at night?
Night work is when you work at least three hours between 11pm and 6am.
HSE guidance says that night work itself does not pose any particular risk to new or breastfeeding mothers. However, if you are breastfeeding, or have given birth in the last six months and your doctor or midwife gives you a certificate that says it is necessary for your health and safety to avoid night work, your employer must offer you safe and suitable alternative work or, where this is not possible, suspend you on full pay.
If your employer refuses to do this, or offers an alternative which you feel is not safe or not suitable, seek advice.
What rights do I have if I am self-employed or an agency worker?
If you are not an employee, for example, if you are self employed or an agency worker (with less than 12 weeks service with a hirer), you only have the right to a risk assessment and for risks to be removed, not to an alternative or a suspension.
If you are an agency worker and you have completed a 12 week qualifying period with the same hirer in the same role, and your role ends on maternity health and safety grounds, the agency should offer you any suitable alternative work that is available. If the agency cannot find any suitable alternative work for you, they should pay you for the rest of the placement that has been ended.
We have a sample letter to an employer about health and safety during pregnancy which can be adapted for new or breastfeeding mothers.
My baby was stillborn or died after childbirth
Full health and safety protection apply to everyone who has given birth, which includes giving birth to a stillborn child.
Full maternity rights are the entitlement of everyone who gives birth to a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy. They are also the right of everyone who gives birth to a baby who lives, even for a few seconds, at any point in the pregnancy.
Discuss your concerns with your doctor or midwife and ask for a letter stating that your working conditions are a risk to you, if a risk has been identified, you are entitled to a proper risk assessment.
For more information, see our article on miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death – your rights at work.
I want to continue breastfeeding, when can I take breaks to feed my baby or express milk?
There is no statutory entitlement to paid breastfeeding breaks in the UK yet. However, all employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of breastfeeding mothers and to provide ‘suitable facilities’ for a breastfeeding mother ‘to rest’.
This means that you should be have access to suitable facilities and breaks to breastfeed or express milk. You should be able to change your hours temporarily and/or be temporarily transferred to alternative work if your working conditions stop you from breastfeeding or expressing.
In order to exercise these rights you should inform your employer in writing that you are breastfeeding your baby, and discuss what arrangements will be made. Your employer should carry out a risk assessment which should consider the risks to you as a breastfeeding mother. A letter from your GP may help.
European Union Guidelines recommend that rest facilities should include access to a private room, access to a secure, clean fridge for storing milk and time off to express milk or to breastfeed. If these are not provided the lack of facilities could amount to a health and safety risk.
If you need to reduce or change your hours to continue breastfeeding, and you can show that your required hours would make it hard or impossible for you to breastfeed or express and your employer unjustifiably refuses, you may have a claim of indirect sex discrimination. If your employer refuses to let you return to work because you are breastfeeding, you may have claims of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination in an Employment Tribunal. If you are considering bringing a claim you should seek legal advice.
This advice applies in England, Wales and Scotland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details. If you are in Northern Ireland you can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.
If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.
The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.
We cannot provide advice on employment rights in Northern Ireland as the law is different. You can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.